My attempt at a Siletz etymology for t’ísáy ‘stick game’

A word that I first learned from the wonderful 2012 Grand Ronde Tribes dictionary of Chinuk Wawa is t’isay ‘the many-stick gambling game; the bundle of sticks used in playing the many-stick game’.


Siletz gambling sticks (image credit: National Museum of the American Indian)

This t’isay is “of obscure origin” and is associated “especially with the Siletz Reservation, suggesting that the word may come from a coastal language.”

So I had a look at the publicly available materials on various Siletz Reservation languages, including

  • Coos,
  • Siuslaw,
  • Alsea,
  • Tillamook Salish,
  • Takelma,

— but without finding any morphemes or words of relevant meaning (‘gamble; gambling; game; stick game; slahal; hand game’ etc.) and shape.

In the K’alapuyan languages I find only the verb roots ~ tes/des ‘find’ and ~ ay ‘to stop, to pay attention, to take care, to proceed with caution’, but I have no genuine indication that these would be combined into a single word relating to the slahal game.

Then I had a look into the Siletz Dee-ni language, which is Oregon Coast Athabaskan; it’s the main tribal language taught at modern Siletz. I can’t claim that I’ve proved a new etymology for Chinuk Wawa’s t’isay, but the following word leaped off the computer screen for me:

wvn-t’vs yay-ghin-tan’
‘goal in stick game, he, she, it made a __’

It seems to me that a non-Athabaskan speaker might hear this expression spoken in a stick game session, and perhaps would remember just the “…t’vs yay…” part of it, /…t’əsyay…/.

I’m pretty certain that …t’vs yay… is not a validly formed word in Siletz Dee-ni, though. The above expression strikes me as possibly a noun object followed by a verb.

Let me show you some other forms of the same verb in different “persons”:

  • wvn-t’vs yaa-ghii-tan’ ‘goal in stick game, I made a __’
  • wvn-t’vs yaa-ghin-tan’ ‘goal in stick game, you made a __’
  • wvn-t’vs yaa-ghit-tan’ ‘goal in stick game, we made a __’
  • wvn-t’vs yaa-ghu’-tan’ ‘goal in stick game, you all made a __’

These 4 forms have in common a sequence of sounds that’s pretty similar to t’isay as well: …t’vs yaa…

One detail that favors a comparison between Siletz Dee-ni …t’vs yay… / …t’vs yaa… and Chinuk Wawa t’isay is that the 2012 CW dictionary shows this latter word pronounced as [t’ιsay]. The first syllable is a “short i” sound. (Not the “long i” that sounds like “eeee” in English “wheeee!”) Short i is a very common pronunciation of schwa /ə/, so the Dee-ni /…t’əsyay…/ is likely to have been said and/or heard as /…t’ιsyay…/, quite similar to CW t’isay.

[I already published this post, but let me edit to add this: There are vanishingly few Dene (Athabaskan) words in Chinuk Wawa. It would have a lot of symbolic meaning if we can show that this word, or some other, comes from those tribal languages.] 

qʰata mayka təmtəm?
What do you think?